Friday night, March 11, Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Chicago was canceled
on account of protests. Mr. Trump was scheduled to speak at the UIC
Pavilion, but it became clear before the event began that a large percentage of
those in attendance – by some estimates more than 25% – were not supporters but
protestors. Mr. Trump’s cancellation of the event triggered celebrations among
the protestors and some tense confrontations between Trump supporters,
protestors, and police.
If last night’s protests prove to be a turning point in this
campaign it will be because the protestors realized something we should all
have realized by now: Not voting for Donald Trump, whether by withholding a
vote or voting for another candidate, doesn’t go far enough. Mr. Trump has
earned our active opposition.
Mr. Trump has given voters – and, for that matter,
non-voters – reason upon reason to reject him. He is unreliable. He has several
times failed to meet his own self-imposed deadlines to name foreign policy
advisors, and it shows in his debates. His positions on constitutional and
legal matters, such as religious freedom, torture, and extrajudicial punishment
are inconsistent and dangerous. His policy proposals are hazardous to public
health and environmental sustainability. His campaign promises are absurd. He
continues to insist that Mexico will pay for a wall at the southern border of
the United States. When Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto said that Mexico
would not pay for such a wall, Mr. Trump responded by saying that the wall “just
got higher.” Currently, Mr. Trump is now talking about a
wall almost seven times higher than the Berlin Wall and more than three times
higher than the Great Wall of China. Of course this makes it at least
superficially comical when Trump attempts to channel Ronald “Tear Down This
Wall” Reagan. Given these shortcomings and many others, it is hard to see how
Mr. Trump has earned anyone’s vote. He is obviously a charlatan.
As substantial as these issues are, Mr. Trump gives voters a
still more important reason not only to withhold votes, but to actively oppose
his candidacy. The single most important reason to oppose Donald Trump is that
he erodes the conditions for civic life and undermines the possibility of political
discourse. He is nothing short of a toxic candidate.
Several characteristics of Mr. Trump’s campaign threaten the
very conditions for civic life and political discourse:
bullshitting. Mr. Trump has, from the beginning of his campaign, engaged in
mockery and bullshitting. The two are perhaps best exemplified together in his mocking
of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski in November. Mr. Trump had cited a 2001 article by Kovaleski as evidence
that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jesey City cheered as they watched the September 11th attacks. When Mr. Kovaleski challenged the
accuracy of that claim, Mr.
Trump made fun of Mr. Kovaleski’s chronic condition affecting the movement of
his arms. He then claimed he had done no such thing.This was one of
many specific lies that Mr. Trump had told by November (late in that month, the
list was at least 26 lies long).
While candidates with disdain for the truth are
nothing new, but Mr. Trump
takes things to a different level by perfecting the art of “bullshitting.” In an essay
for The New Republic, Jeet Heer draws
upon Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit to
describe Mr. Trump as “something worse than a liar.”
He is a bullshit artist. In his
2005 book On
Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt, emeritus philosophy professor at
Princeton University, makes an important distinction between lying and
bullshitting—one that is extremely useful for understanding the pernicious
impact that Trump has on public life. Frankfurt’s key observation is that the
liar, even as he or she might spread untruth, inhabits a universe where the
distinction between truth and falsehood still matters. The bullshitter, by
contrast, does not care what is true or not. By his or her bluffing,
dissimulation, and general dishonesty, the bullshit artist works to erase the
very possibility of knowing the truth. For this reason, bullshit is more
dangerous than lies, since it erodes even the possibility of truth existing and
By choosing shameless mockery rather than engaging
disputes about the facts, and then by denying it when everyone knew better, Mr.
Trump undermined not only the truth, but the very idea of truth, the very idea that “distinction between truth and falsehood
still matters.” Mr. Trump’s repeated resort to insults and lies undermines key
conditions for meaningful political discourse. It’s poisoning public life.
demagoguery. Mr. Trump has also trafficked in bigotry, hatred, and fear,
pandering to the baser instincts of his supporters. He calculatingly plays to authoritarian
tendencies, white nationalist fears, and Islamophobia, suggesting that Mexican
immigrants are rapists and that “Islam hates us.” When offered opportunities to
clarify, qualify, or retract such statements, he often prefers either to
dissemble or to double down.
Paradoxically, the weightiest testimony to the power of Mr.
Trump’s demagoguery is his utter failure to credibly address the fears of his
base, even with regard to less charged issues, such as economic distress, class
warfare, and unemployment. His incompetence in these areas hasn’t seemed to matter. Voters haven’t made Mr. Trump work hard for their support. Many simply note that Mr. Trump says what they’re
thinking, and he has managed to secure their confidence by merely repeating
their sentiments. Many presume this repetition means he sympathizes with,
intends to address, and can effectively respond to their fears, but there is no
reason to believe any of that.
In fact, there is better reason to believe that a Trump
presidency would further distress the voters whose fears he repeats. His
proposed 45% tariff on imports, for example, would no doubt raise the cost of
living for those already feeling the pinch. His stated willingness to trample the religious liberties of Muslims should give pause to others who think he will for some reason shore up their own religious liberty. Trump supporters, then, should be
careful what they ask for, as the help they expect may actually be harmful to
them. As a character in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian notes, “When the lambs is lost in the mountain, they
is cry. Sometime come the mother, sometime the wolf.” When it comes to
responding to some of his own supporters’ fears, he’s closer to the wolf than he
is to the mother lamb.
More importantly, though, Mr. Trump’s pandering and
demagoguery, like his mockery and bullshitting, undermine the conditions for
civic life. Shameless repetition of fears and empty promises of answers are no
basis for ongoing political discourse.
Silencing and violence.
Finally, Mr. Trump has encouraged silencing of and violence against those who
oppose him. Since February, Mr. Trump has had scores of people removed from his
rallies. Some of these people have been vocal protestors and others have been
standing in silent opposition. Mr. Trump, it appears, will have neither.
Moreover, many protestors have been verbally abused and physically assaulted by
Trump supporters. In a recent case, a Trump supporter assaulted a protestor and
later said that they might have to kill that person if they see them again
(justifying that, incredibly, by saying that one never knows if the protestor is
an ISIS member). Mr. Trump not only fails to wholeheartedly condemn
such mistreatment, but condones, encourages, and promotes it. He openly
expresses nostalgia for some golden age of political violence and offers to pay
the legal fees of supporters who might be sued for assaulting those who
disagree with him.
has compiled evidence of Mr. Trump’s escalating rhetoric of aggression and
violence since the Iowa primary. As the Chicago Tribune points out, the
resulting violence is “hardly
surprising, entirely predictable.”
Needless to say, resorting to the brute force of silencing
and violence also undermines the conditions for shared civic life and
meaningful political discourse. The widespread use of silencing and violence to
achieve political objectives would, in fact, mean the end of flourishing
political discourse. We may be watching that ending unfold before our very
For all these reasons, Mr. Trump’s campaign is beyond
disagreeable, incorrect, outrageous, or silly – it is downright dangerous. In
this way, Mr. Trump is unique among this year’s candidates. Though each has his or her liabilities, in Donald Trump’s world – one in which mockery, bullshit, pandering,
demagoguery, silencing, and violence are normal – we wouldn’t even be able to
hold a fruitful discussion of those liabilities.
Mr. Trump’s candidacy to this point has been damaging
enough, but to elect him would be tantamount to poisoning the well of political
life in the United States. While they weren’t perfect (Alan Jacobs points out that some of them may share some of the dysfunction of extreme Trump supporters), Friday night’s protestors actively
opposed Mr. Trump. Anyone else who hopes for a flourishing civic life – or even
a basically functional one – should do the same.